The Saint Bernard
breed began at the monastery and
hospice founded by Bernard de
Menthon, an Augustine monk, in
the mid-eleventh century. This
was located in the only pass
through the Alps between Italy
and Switzerland. It was very
dangerous for foot travelers.
Being caught in that difficult
terrain during unexpected storms
was often fatal.
written records about the
hospice dogs during the first
700 years have been found. The
earliest known depiction of the
breed was two paintings
attributed to the Italian artist
Salvatore Rosa, done in 1695.
Each painting shows a well-built
shorthaired dog with a very
identifiable head, a long tail,
and dewclaws. Experts concluded
that these paintings show a
breed that had been in existence
for approximately 25 years.
Thus, the most accepted estimate
is that the breed originated
sometime between 1660 and 1670. The dogs came from the Swiss
valleys near the hospice, and
were likely descendants of the
mastiff style Asiatic dogs that
were first brought there by the
that the unique lifesaving work
of the dogs began about the year
1700. Before that, it is assumed
that these dogs served as
watchdogs and companions to the
monks. It appears that the dogs
accompanied the monks on
mountain patrols, seeking unwary
missing or trapped travelers.
The dogs had an uncanny sense to
detect impending avalanches.
Somehow the dogs learned rescue
techniques from the monks.
Eventually male dogs were sent
in unaccompanied packs of two or
three to seek lost or injured
pilgrims. Often the dogs had to
find people buried in the snow,
dig through the overlaying snow,
rouse the traveler and lie atop
the wayfarer to provide warmth
if the traveler was unable to
move. Meanwhile, the other dog
would return to the hospice to
alert the monks that they needed
to rescue a trapped pilgrim.
Travelers who could still walk
would be led back to the hospice
by the dogs. The instinct to dig
to people buried beneath snow
and to rouse those lying in snow
is still evident in the breed
Because many dogs
perished during the more severe
winters, the monks tried
breeding to longhaired breeds
beginning in 1830, reasoning
that the long hair would better
protect the Saint Bernard
against the cold. For the most
part, this idea did not bring
the results expected. Ice formed
on the long hair, and the weight
of accumulated ice and snow very
quickly incapacitated the dogs.
Consequently, they could not use
longhaired dogs for rescue work.
Soon the monks returned to
almost exclusive use of
shorthaired dogs for mountain
work and began to give away all
longhaired puppies. The Swiss
recipients of these puppies used
them for breeding with their own
dogs, resulting in litters
containing both longhaired
(rough) and shorthaired (smooth)
puppies - which continues today.
By the way, they never did
wear the ever-popular kegs on
their collars. This was added in
a painting by a popular English
artist, Sir Edward Landseer, and
caught the public's fancy. The
dogs would sometimes carry
supplies on a backpack, such as
blankets, medical supplies, or
Saint is a loving family dog who
wants to be with his people.
They are quiet natured once they
grow out of the puppy energy;
always ready for a good hike,
but happy to lie quietly while
you read or relax. They get
along well with other pets, and
typically love children best.
This is the breed we love!